I found Jerry painting his mom’s house in the rain. He was standing under an umbrella duct-taped to a ladder, kept going over the same spot with a brush. Over and over and over.
I told him we were late for the show. Our noise band was playing at this club called The Apple. None of this registered with him though.
“Why are you painting in the rain?” I asked.
“I ate a lot of mushrooms.”
The rain was really coming down, we pressed close together under the umbrella. Our bodies touched.
“How many did you eat?”
Jerry kind of looked at the ground and mumbled. “All of them.”
“Fuck man, those were for the three of us.”
He looked at me but wasn’t really looking at me, was looking passed me, through me, to the evergreen stretching above us in the middle of the yard.
“This is Trisha,” Jerry said fingering the needles. “She’s as old as this city.”
Lightening flashed too close for comfort and I saw Jerry’s mom in the window in her white bathrobe, just staring out at the yard and the rain. Looking for something or nothing at all.
“We should go,” I said, “Tommy’s waiting for us.” Thunder boomed and I felt the hair on my neck raise higher.
“We gotta get out of here,” Jerry said.
We ran to my car. Jerry slid into the passenger seat and asked: “where are we going?”
“You have to play the keyboard, can you do that?”
“Me? Of course I can.”
When Sean told me Jerry ate all the mushrooms I give him a look like fuck you and said: “You we’re supposed to be watching him.” Then I turned and left him standing there like an idiot. I could never be mad a Jerry. Everything happening with his mom, how could you? He was like a puppy. A puppy that had shat on the fancy rug.
I got a pitcher of beer from the bar and poured it into a plastic cup and chugged it, then I poured another cup and chugged that, and then I did it again until I was buzzing. Since we were so early Sean and Jerry ate food from next door and I watched members of the other bands trickle in. Long-haired bros in denim. So much denim. Fuck denim.
The owner of the place came in and introduced himself to me.
“Cool,” I said, “I’m Tommy. I play in SpyDoors.”
“Mademoiselle,” he said. And then he took my hand and kissed it. Like what the fuck? All tongue and everything.
“The hell man!”
Then bartender sort of interrupted. “Don’t sweat it, it’s a French thing. He does it to everyone.”
“You don’t even look French,” I said, turning back to Ron. “What the fuck kind of French name is Ron.”
Turns out I had the wrong time, which Tommy was pissed about, but fuck her. This meant the club had to feed us. Free meal. Ron, the owner, ordered us burgers from the Applebee’s next door, which I guess he also owned. I was starving. I smashed mine and was still hungry. Jerry had hardly touched his. Everyone around us was drinking or getting high or warming up. Tommy was smoking a cigarette with Ron. We’d be going on in a half hour.
“You going to eat your burger?”
“I don’t think so man.”
I’d forgotten he was still high. I scooped fries off his plate. “You’ll be able to play keys, right?”
“When? Me? Of course.”
In the bathroom I looked at myself in the mirror and then lifted up my shirt and looked at my stomach. It looked flat and I felt skinny or like I was getting there.
I looked at myself in the mirror again and felt fine. Actually I felt better than fine.
The show was great. We killed it. This dude kept on smacking himself in the head with his shoe and during our last song his nose was bleeding and he was flinging blood everywhere, especially on his shoe. Really punk rock, but we’re a noise band.
We played droning, hyper melody stuff that made the room melt like ice cream.
In the middle of it all, Tommy started dancing with this girl, singing and dancing. They were really getting into it, feeding off each other. She backed the girl into one of the couches and started grinding on her while screaming into the microphone. Tommy doesn’t really have lyrics, she just screams whatever she’s feeling. Screams and screams. And it was hot because it was like girl on girl.
There’s a part near the end of our song “Death Tire” where I do all my loops and just let everything sweep a bit so I can kind of stare out into the crowd and vibe. And for a second, I thought I saw my mom. She was just, you know, standing there. Enjoying the show in her white bathrobe. Black hair, white face. Nah, it couldn’t be her. I knew she was at home, obviously. Maybe it was the mushrooms. I turned the knob of the oscillator until the frequency of the synth was so piercing it felt like the sound was inside me. Then I looked back up and mom was gone.
I found this pair of scissors in my back pocket. Don’t know how they got there, but I pulled them out and started cutting my hair. Slowly at first, and then in huge chunks. Tufts fell onto my keyboard, onto my peddles. Some kid wanted me to do his. So I pulled his face close and took the scissors to his blond hair. I just went with it, and he let me. He had no idea what he’d become and I didn’t know what I’d make him to be. His beautiful blond hair. My god. My god.
After the show we all huddled around this can fire in the alley, smoking joints and drinking cheap beer from old bottles. Some kids were kicking this hacky sack and every so often it’d hit someone who was trying to have an actual adult fucking conversation. I could tell people were getting annoyed, so when it hit me in the back of the neck I tossed it in the fire and said “time for bed kids.” When I do shit like this I’ve learned it can kind of divide a room. You’re either with me or not, and I guess it’s always been that way for me.
No one really said anything for a minute. Ron and Tommy were sharing a smoke and it was just me and Jerry and a bunch of dudes from the other bands. No one would say anything about how much we killed it with our set, and I wasn’t going to fish around for compliments. Whatever. These stupid assholes and their garage band thrift store denim jackets.
I told Jerry his hair looked great and we both laughed. And then I went back inside to grab us each beers.
When I came back, Tommy was gone and Jerry said he wanted to go home. So, I tossed the beers in the fire and we left.
Fuck ‘em. Seriously. Fuck ‘em. I went to my car and turned it on and blasted the heat. I was freezing. Slowdive was playing. I popped the glove box and dug around for the Bic razor. I held it in my hand but didn’t do anything. I couldn’t. I just stared at it.
I’m never trying to escape a feeling, I’m trying to find one. I want to feel close to something. To be swaddled like a baby.
I told Ron maybe it was because my mother left me and my dad when I was 6 months old. Maybe because my dad didn’t know how to nurse me.
“We’re all fucked up in some way, right Ron?”
Ron hadn’t said anything, just flicked his cigarette at the ground. Then suddenly he put both his hands around my face and pulled it to his. Tongue and shitty mustache all wet and fucked up.
Tommy was banging on my window but I pretended I was sleeping. I closed my eyes tighter and hoped she’d go away. She didn’t.
“I know you’re not sleeping.
“I’m asleep,” I yelled.
“Open this damn thing, will you?”
I got out of bed. I was just wearing briefs and must’ve been having a sex dream because I was fairly erect, so there was that. Not my fault, you’re banging on my window at 2 a.m., what do you want from me? I opened the window and she climbed into my room.
“Ron Apple,” she said, pulling up something on her phone.
“Never heard of him.”
“The guy who tried to jump me tonight. The owner of the bar we just played.”
Jerry’d filled me in a bit about what’d happened between her and Ron, at least as best as someone like Jerry can fill someone in.
“He tried to eat her face, man,” Jerry’d said. “His tongue was flailing like a lizard’s.”
He kept on talking about his sister and his mom too and after a while you just can’t help but tune that shit out, you know?
Tommy had a lot of energy for 2 a.m. She was bouncy, couldn’t seem to stand in one spot and made the wooden floor boards creak.
“What’d you take? Kratum? Redbull?”
She ignored this. “Fucking pervert owns the Applebee’s next door.”
She shoved her phone at me, this article with a picture of Ron grinning in front of his Applebee’s. Owner/operator or some shit, I wasn’t about to read the whole thing. Proud American.
“He loves Applebee’s,” she said. “Lovvvvvvves it.”
I knew she wasn’t just banging on my window to tell me this, so I started to put on pants and a hoodie. We we’re about to get into something bad, and just for good measure I asked her what her plan was.
“I’m going to burn it down,” she said. “And you’re going to help me.”
I wanted to kiss her. But that’d make me just as bad as him.
In the car we didn’t talk, just smoked cigarette after cigarette. Me and Sean. The college radio station played Smashing Pumpkins and then Foo Fighters and I didn’t turn it off even though I fucking hate the Foo Fighters. I mean, I guess they’re fine. But I hate them. The street lights bounced off the hood of my car and I bit the inside of my mouth every time we passed one. Click. Click. Click.
I was thinking. Thinking about if this would change anything for me. If it’d make me feel anything to make someone else feel something.
I’d borrowed a gas can from my neighbor’s shed and knew you could break a glass window with porcelain from a spark plug because my brother’d done it to this police cruiser one time when they were giving Dwayne on the corner a hard time about selling his magazines.
“What’s this?” Sean had my razor. I saw him glance at my thighs.
“Gimme it,” I reached out my hand, palm up for him to place it in, but instead he wrapped his fingers in mine and held tight. And I smiled because a part of me felt swaddled and maybe that was the feeling I was looking for this whole time. Maybe I didn’t have to do this?
I made the turn onto Damen and we could see the Applebee’s a block away. I could just keep driving. We could drive all night like this, that’d be fine.
Sean let go of my hand. “This is going to be so cool.”
Wait a minute. Hey! We drove right passed it.
“Oh good idea, park a few blocks away.”
She parked the car on a quiet side street and I got out. Practically jumped out. Man, I was ready to wreck. Let’s do this.
“We actually don’t have to do this.”
What? I grabbed the gas can from the back seat.
“The fuck we don’t. Hey, you wana get this creep or what?”
I was already heading towards the Applebee’s. I couldn’t feel my feet. In hindsight, I think I moved through a rift in time. There was me beaning the porcelain bead at the entrance glass door. The glass shattering into a thousand parts. Me dousing the vinyl booths with gasoline: the carpet, the menus, the kitchen, then a trail out the back door to the parking lot where Tommy was waiting for me.
“Okay,” I said breathlessly. “Let’s do it.”
She held the lighter but didn’t light it.
“C’mon, do it. Light it.”
“Just hold me.”
“Sean hold me.” She threw her head into my chest at me and wrapped her arms.
I grabbed her face and pulled it to mine.
“No,” She said pushing on me. “Just hold me.”
But where’s the fun in that?
I wanted this so bad, more than her now, it seemed. I grabbed the lighter from her hand and pushed her away.
“This is it.”
I struck the lighter and brought it down to the gasoline. The flame took shape but just sort puddled and died. Fuck.
“I need to light it from inside.”
She called at me. Called to me. Called something but I didn’t hear it or wasn’t trying to.
I stood in the parking lot crying into my sweater waiting for him to come out. But he didn’t. I couldn’t find my cigarettes. Or he had them. No phone either, I’d left it in the car. Fuck, I felt so fucking stupid. All of this had been about control I realized. Thinking I wanted it, having it taken away from me, trying to take it from someone else.
There was smoke now. Could smell it. Sean where are you? Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
I heard what sounded like police sirens now.
I wanted to be swaddled. I wanted to be squeezed so bad.
I turned to run and then stopped. Jerry’s mom stood in the back of the parking lot. Haunting like a ghost. She was wearing a pink bathrobe, had no shoes on. Her hair stood on end, like she’d been struck by lightning.
The building was starting to crackle. Beams wear heating, fire growing. Jerry’s mom and I met in the middle of the lot. Her eyes were glazed and clouded like milky planets and I could tell she was on a lot of stuff. She had a look like she’d been searching for something for a long, long time.
“Me too,” I said, “me too.”
We stood there, here and I. Two souls.
And I fell into her arms.
Kevin Sterne is the author of All Must Go. He is the winner of the Phoebe Journal 2020 fiction contest. His stories have appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, Maudlin House, Smokelong Quarterly, and other great places. He lives in Chicago and works in landscaping.